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Our national holiday honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is special every year. But it’s particularly special this year.
In just four days, we will undergo an unprecedented national transformation. A man who has made political hay by bashing African-Americans and other minorities will replace our first mixed-race president. A man whose educational career ended with a few business-school courses as an undergraduate at Penn will replace a constitutional law professor who, as a law student, was President of the Harvard Law Review
A man who has no political experience whatsoever will replace a man who became president after four years as a United States senator and eight years as an Illinois senator. A man who gained notoriety by shouting “You’re fired!” on television, and who gained wealth by stiffing employees, contractors, students and investors in multiple bankruptcies, will replace a man who made his money by writing books and cut his teeth in politics organizing communities to better themselves.
A rude, thoughtless, inconsistent and narcissistic braggart will replace a thoughtful, circumspect, steady, kind and considerate man of extraordinary empathy and political skill. A man who bragged about grabbing women by their genitals will replace a man whose family life and family have been exemplary, despite the pressures of living in the fishbowl of the most-watched household on Earth.
In the face of such a transition, it’s possible—even easy—to despair. It’s possible to fear that everything that makes us “Ugly Americans” abroad will subsume Lincoln’s “better angels of our nature.” It’s possible to believe that the end of our American “exceptionalism” is nigh, for whatever “exceptionalism” we Yanks ever had came more from right than from might. Or so we thought.
That’s why it’s especially important, this year, to remember who Dr. King was, what he did, and when he did it.
Dr. King worked his “miracles” during one of the darkest post-slavery periods of racial injustice in our history: the regime of Jim Crow. Yet he never despaired. He feared nothing and no one. Why? Because he had faith in the basic goodness and decency of all Americans.
And he found ways to bring them out. Sometimes he appealed directly to our better angels. He did that (to his eternal fame) in his “I have a dream” speech. Sometimes he showed us the consequences of our selfishness and indifference by suffering those consequences before our very eyes.
Dr. King did that in leading the nonviolent march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. There Rep. John Lewis courageously stood his ground and was beaten to within an inch of his life. (Donald Trump can Tweet nonsense about Rep. Lewis all he likes. But we, the people, know that Trump, if on that bridge, would have turned and run.)
Dr. King knew how to invoke and to provoke. He did both sublimely well. Yet he kept his eyes on the prize and never lost courage or faith.
Toward the end of his short life, Dr. King did something else remarkable: he told us straight out what we had become. We Yanks, he said, had become the Earth’s greatest purveyors of violence, especially in Vietnam.
That inconvenient truth outraged many Americans. It may have contributed to Dr. King’s martyrdom.
Yet today we understand our devastation of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, in support of a paranoid fantasy of “dominoes” falling to Communism, as the greatest foreign-policy blunder of our national history. Dr. King was right, and he told the truth, regardless of consequences.
So Dr. King had insight. He had great political skill. He had courage. But most of all, he had empathy and perseverance—the very same traits
that let Nelson Mandela work his own political “miracle”: negotiating his people’s freedom from inside a prison cell.
In the end, Dr. King won. He didn’t destroy racism; it will take generations to do that. But he beat back the forces of darkness and made considerable progress. By cooperating with and cajoling pols like Kennedy and Johnson, he won the civil rights and voting rights statutes that eventually contributed to Barack Obama’s presidency.
Now that presidency, one of the better in our history
, has seen an explosive backlash. But Obama and his legacy have truth and right on their side.
If we want to give all our people access to modern medicine—as a nation of our wealth and pretension ought—we are going to have to have something like “Obamacare’s” subsidies and mandates. Or we are going to have to move to a single-payer system, like every other advanced nation on our planet. There is no other practical way to proceed, except to condemn a large fraction of our people to suffering and premature death, and to let the poor bring the next pandemic right into our homes, nurseries, and bedrooms.
The same is true of global warming. It is real, and fossil fuels are slowly running out. We can ignore those truths in order to serve the powerful and make the rich richer in the short term. Or we can prepare for the inevitable energy transformation, dominate the new industries that we know our species must build, and give our skilled workers good, good-paying and useful jobs in the process.
In his own way, Dr. King was a showman not entirely unlike Donald Trump. But the shows Dr. King
put on were “reality” shows in more than name. They showed us the reality of our lives and the consequences of our long-term neglect of truth and justice. Unlike Trump’s “reality shows” and “fake news”, Dr. King’s shows revealed what really matters.
Others will follow Dr. King. Perhaps they will not be martyred, as Mandela was not. While we honor Dr. King and hope for others to come, we should not forget what he stood for. Like Jesus himself, Dr. King sought human empathy, equality and justice. And like Jesus, he did so without violent revolution.
In a way, Dr. King outdid Jesus, who lived in a primitive time where life without perpetual violence was unthinkable. Dr. King pushed the causes of equal treatment and racial justice forward. He even got them written into law. And he did so at a time when his sometime antagonist—our own government—was engaged in the greatest act of collective violence globally at that time.
So it can be done. Dr. King did it. In this time of darkness and foreboding, we should never forget what he did and how he did it. And we should all strive, whatever our station, our race, and our politics, to do likewise. Forming a more perfect Union, as our Constitution commands, is hard but doable work.